Left to Right: Terry Xu, Lim Tean, Senior Counsel Kristy Tan, Justice Hoo Sheau Peng, and former Deputy Attorney General Hri Kumar Nair

SINGAPORE — On Thursday, the High Court ordered Terry Xu, the editor of TOC, to pay a fine of S$18,000 for the publication of an article under the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act and S$12,000 of costs awarded to the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC).

The offending article is an open letter addressed to Singapore’s Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and written by Julie O’Connor, a former Singapore Permanent Resident, in 2021.

O’Connor first published her letter in her blog before sharing it on her social media platforms and it was republished by TOC with her permission.

O’Connor’s letter was a response to the speech delivered by the Chief Justice at the Opening of the Legal Year 2021. The Chief Justice spoke about the efficiency and progress of the Singapore judicial system in adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He made special mention of Parti Liyani’s case, whose convictions for thefts were overturned by the High Court upon appeal. He said that judges are not infallible but the appeal process worked well.

In her letter, O’Connor commented on his omission of not mentioning the case of Lee Suet Fern and Li Shengwu, who in her opinion, were “persecuted”.

The police were ordered to investigate O’Connor and Xu by former Deputy Attorney General Hri Kumar Nair, a former PAP MP, for a possible offence of contempt of court in 2021.

Police arrived at Xu’s house and seized his phone and computer in March 2021 and interviewed him at the Cantonment Police Station. After three months of investigations, AGC demanded an apology and the removal of the article on TOC, which Xu refused.

O’Connor was never contacted by the police.

During the earlier hearing last year, Public Prosecutor Kristy Tan told the court that O’Connor’s letter scandalised Singapore’s judiciary and by republishing it, Xu had committed contempt of court.

PP Tan submitted that she had impugned the “integrity, propriety or impartiality” of the court and Terry Xu is therefore liable for contempt.

Mr Lim Tean who represented Xu submitted that O’Connor’s criticisms were directed at the AGC and not the judiciary.

He referred to the part of the letter pertaining to the two cases:

“Neither you nor the Attorney-General made any mention of either of these two cases. This omission led to many to question if it was because Li Shengwu and Lee Suet Fern were not prosecuted but persecuted due to a family feud between the Prime Minister and his siblings.”

Mr Lim said the judicial system comprises the judiciary, the AGC and the Bar. Arguing that the statement clearly referred to the AGC which has the discretion to prosecute or not to prosecute.

In the written judgement by Justice Hoo Sheau Peng, it is ruled that the article suggested that Singapore’s legal system favoured those who had money, power, or connections with judges, that judges were not selected for their courage to seek or determine the truth, and that the courts were complicit with the AGC in the political persecution of certain people.

While Xu argued that the criticism was directed only at the AGC and not the Judiciary, Justice Hoo rejected this argument, stating that the “system of justice” necessarily included the Judiciary.

It was determined by the judge that the article published by Xu posed a risk of undermining public confidence in the administration of justice, as the statements made in the article directly impugned the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.

The judge cited previous cases to emphasize that such allegations are among the most serious attacks that one can make against courts and the administration of justice, going to the heart and essence of the judicial mission and oath.

Additionally, the judge found that the article did not constitute fair criticism, as the central message was that the court rulings against Mrs Lee and Mr Li were made under political influence, which was not supported by any objective or rational basis.

The public prosecutors have earlier asked for a fine of S$20,000 and around S$18,000 for costs, while Mr Lim asked for a fine of S$3,000 and no cost in consideration of public interest.

The judge said that she was of the view that a fine of S$18,000 is an appropriate sentence in light of precedents of Jolovan Wham, Alex Au and John Tan, who were fined between S$5,000 to S$8000 and where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew, Li Shengwu was previously fined S$15,000 for a private Facebook post that he made.

Justice Hoo wrote that Xu’s offending conduct is more egregious than that of the other contemnors and therefore warrants a higher sentence than those cases.

The fine has to be paid within four weeks. In default of payment of the fine, a term of ten days’ imprisonment will be imposed.

TOC was shut down by Information Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in September 2021 over the failure to declare its funding after it refused to submit particulars of its subscribers to IMDA. It has re-opened as a publication under an entity registered in Taiwan since September 2022.

OS 694-2021 SUM 3816-2021 Judgment-060423

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